Ofori Amponsah

Odwo

(Supermusic; 2007)

By Drew Hinshaw | 30 December 2007

Has R. Kelly's R&B theatre gone global? All of 23 months since the premier of "Trapped in the Closet," Ofori Amponsah's "Nothing But Love," a dramatic piece from his latest record Odwo, suggests it has. Halfway into the six-minute pop opera, Amponsah comes into the role of a jilted lover arguing with his woman, a cheat. "If you go, you go scatter my heart," he unsuccessfully warns her in histrionic Pidgin English. His voice quivers from the stress. "Is it a sin to give your heart up to someone to love?" he asks, defensively.

If the answer to Amponsah's rhetorical question is an unfortunate yes, then he is uniquely hell-bound among contemporary highlife crooners. St. Peter will surely pry the harp from the trembling hands of this Ghanaian Twi-singing sentimentalist whose discography follows a predictably tragic arc between love-at-first-sight jams -- like 2005's "Lady I'm Serious (I Want to Marry You)" -- and melodramatic break-up singles like 2006's anti-gold-digger lament "Otoolege," which climaxes with the swooning refrain, "I want to come destroy my life." The brilliant Brian Eno-meets-Kwame Nkrumah philosopher-producer behind the soap opera curtains is the puppet master JQ, a fiercely nationalistic beatmaker who boasts to have produced 80 percent of Ghana's radio content. That may be true. JQ is the digerati who banished East Coast hiphop from Ghana's shores, reviving electric highlife guitar and local Ga rhythms like the Djama. The resulting new wave of Ghanaian pop is largely celebratory, and recognizably African -- with an international flare for drum programming, R&B gloss, and Jamaican Patois -- all centered around its flagship falsetto: the triumphant voice of this desperately romantic showboy, the type who musters the courage to talk to women in the mirror, and the courage to serenade them in the fitful ecstasy of the Pentecostal choir.

Odwo, Ofori's tenth album since 1999, is his most consistent, economical, and exciting. Like all Ofori Amponsah records, it kicks off with a pan-African bang: synthesizer horns blaring, autotune warbling, hiplife rappers recalling Buju Banton, Djama rhythms chopping the earspace into Reggaeton-like shapes, minus the aggression and machismo. Dancehall-inspired hiplifer Batman breezes through the title track with an effortlessly logical verse and looping Gil (traditional xylophone) patterns. Amponsah pours his falsetto across the rhythmic mesh, drenching the soil with libations of artifice, tears, and back-up harmonies. His first three tracks cascade gorgeously: always in these instrumentals, there is levity and motion. Lissome electric guitar riffs swoop around, referencing old '60s highlife gold, with an optimism that portends the kind of bright African future Thomas Friedman writes about. The rhythms push towards a vanishing point with a palpable sense of movement. British-born Africanist John Collins thinks West African pop is Einstienian, with polyrhythms cruising past each other in relative motion, but it's enough to say that these arrangements are ever-evolving, yet circular, like the wheels on a bus: they go 'round and 'round.

Sometimes the bus veers off a cliff, and smashes into a gully like "Babicue," a smooth-jazz besprinkled Americanism. The mirage of trans-Atlantic success misleads hiplife and other Afro-rap movements, and even a proud Ashanti like Amponsah feels the temptation to sing in English and explain Ghanaian culture in clumsy platitudes to an imagined audience. That would be "Highlife Dancing," a humbling stab at Ghana's next "Smile, Jamaica"-type tourist siren song. Then, just as quickly as he stumbled, Ghana's reigning romantic rebounds, donating his falsetto to a not-for-profit violin-accompanied soliloquy like "Homeless," about a motherless child on the continent that gave us that archetype. It's also the continent that gave us freedom psalms and the blues, two key ingredients in America's love of senseless motion -- and Odwo has enough dizzying, dallying movement to make Delta's tedious JFK-to-Accra flight wisk by like an open-air lorry tour through the twists and turns of the Ashanti hillsides.